12/18/2003 12:00AM

On the ropes, Bucs aren't safe play


The penultimate weekend of the NFL regular season gets off to an early start, with three games Saturday that have playoff implications.

The Falcons and Buccaneers kick things off at 10:30 a.m. Vegas time, and the tripleheader won't end until about 10 hours later. The defending world champion Bucs, at 7-7, will try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, and then they will be cheering for the Chiefs to defeat the Vikings, who have slipped to 8-6 after a 6-0 start. The Chiefs, cruising along at 12-2, need a win in that 2 p.m. contest to regain home-field advantage in the AFC from the 12-2 Patriots, who visit the Jets in the nightcap at 5:30 p.m.

The Bucs look like an obvious play - especially since their defense was able to shut down Michael Vick in their two meetings last year, just like the speedy Colts' D did last week in a 38-7 rout - but as the adage goes, just because a team is in a must-win situation, doesn't mean it'll win. Besides, if the Bucs were good enough to win at will, they wouldn't be in this situation.

And laying 7 points with the inconsistent Bucs makes it even less attractive. However, I do like a side in the other two matchups.

Chiefs at Vikings (+3)

The total on this game is 54 1/2, and I don't see either team's defense consistently shutting down the other's offense. A score in the 70's would not be a surprise. With that in mind, turnovers will be key, and I have to side with the home team, especially since the crowd noise could lead to a miscommunication or two by the Chiefs' offense. Another unconventional handicapping angle is that I also expect to see Randy Moss try to make up for his lackluster effort last week on a couple of catchable balls in the loss to the Bears, especially with fellow receivers Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Joe Horn stealing all of his thunder with their end-zone celebrations. A nationally televised game gives Moss the perfect opportunity to shine and, even if it's for purely selfish reasons, carry his team to a huge victory.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Patriots (-3) at Jets

I can't go with the home dog here. Just like in their Super Bowl season two years ago, the Patriots are playing as a team. The defense has been in lockdown mode and has contained better offenses than the Jets'. Tom Brady is directing an efficient offense that controls the tempo of the game and is coming through with clutch plays whenever needed. And obviously, if it snows, the Patriots will feel right at home, where they have won their last two games in blustery conditions. This should be the lowest-scoring game of the day, but a 20-10 win by New England looks about right.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Last week: 5-0 for a profit of 5 units.
NFL season record: 46-31-5 for a net profit of 11.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Bowl games

Since Saturday is usually the day for college football, let's look at some bowl games over the coming week:

Dec. 22: Tangerine Bowl
NC State (-11 1/2) vs. Kansas

This game could be as much of a shootout as the Chiefs-Vikings game. Both offenses can score in bunches, and the defenses let their opponents do the same. Kansas rolled over its weak opponents but didn't step up against quality teams (1-4, both straight up and against the spread vs. bowl-bound teams). North Carolina St. played a tougher schedule and fared better against bowl-bound teams (3-5 straight up and 4-4 against the spread). And even against that competition, NC St. quarterback Philip Rivers completed 71 percent of his passes and threw for more than 4,000 yards with 29 touchdowns. Tailback T.A. McClendon should keep the Kansas defense honest and lead the Wolfpack to a rout.

PLAY: NC State for 1 unit.

Dec. 23: Fort Worth Bowl
Boise St. (-10) vs. TCU

I'm leery of laying double digits in two straight bowl games, but no team has been more adept at covering big spreads in recent years than Boise St. This year, the Broncos covered six of their last seven games, including five as double-digit chalk. They only failed to cover vs. UTEP, when they won 51-21 as a whopping 41 1/2-point favorite. This game is being played on TCU's home field, which can't be discounted, but Boise St. has the more explosive offense and a better defense. TCU lost only one game this season, but it received way too much credit for winning a bunch of games by small margins over mediocre competition. That catches up with them here.

PLAY: Boise St. for 1 unit.

Dec. 24: Las Vegas Bowl
New Mexico (+3) vs. Oregon St.

This local game moves to Christmas Eve after being on Christmas Day the past two years. New Mexico is making its second straight appearance here after losing to UCLA 27-13 last year in a game that is best-remembered for New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida being the first female to appear in a Division I football game. Oregon St., as the No. 5 team in the Pac-10, backed into this bowl, losing four of its last six games, and was only 1-4 on the road. Meanwhile, New Mexico was second in the Mountain West Conference and has won its last three road games, including seven of its last eight overall. The Lobos' ground game, averaging 227 yards per game, should be the difference, as they grind out an upset win.

PLAY: New Mexico for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 0-1 after North Texas's 27-17 loss to Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl for a loss of 1.1 units.
College season record: 32-32 for a net loss of 3.2 units.